When the wind, ice, snow and bitter cold of January have chilled you to the bones, you want a hot dinner that will warm you to the bones.
Nothing fits the bill like homemade soup and bread. Every component of the effort is deeply soul-satisfying: Looking for the perfect recipe through all your treasured cookbooks; chopping carrots, celery, onions and garlic as your mother and her mother did; smelling the enticing aromas of tangy yeast and savory broth; getting your hands in the bread dough and working off weeks of tension. Before you know it, the windows are steamed up from the simmering soup, the bread is rising, you have a free hour or so to catch up on your favorite novel, and everyone who comes in the house says, “Mmmmmm, oh my god, what are you cooking?”
And it need not be all that complicated. Save for a few rare specialties, I never use a recipe for soup. I learned my lesson after an eight-hour ordeal (no kidding) with a fantastically complicated recipe for chicken gumbo that, after all my hard work, tasted exactly like my own chicken soup with a little cayenne thrown in. Once you get the basic idea for making soup you will find that just about anything goes, and over time you will develop a style that defines “your” soup.
The basic component that will determine a great soup is the stock, and nothing beats making your own stock for aroma.
Take very basic ingredients and follow a very basic procedure. Carrots, onions, celery, garlic, bay leaf, peppercorns, a sprig or two of thyme, chicken, browned beef, pork or lamb bones, or even fish bones will be the flavoring agents of your stock. Throw them all in a large soup kettle and just cover with liquid, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer for an hour or so (more depending on the type of stock you are making). Strain and skim off the fat. Voila. You have made your own stock. You are a culinary genius in the eyes of those who don’t realize how easy it is.
Here I must confess, I cheat. I start my chicken stock out with part water and part (gasp) canned chicken broth. I find that if I use water only, it is necessary to simmer the stock too long and the chicken is reduced to a stringy mess of flavorless flesh. With a little leg up, I get a rich stock and tender meat to use in the soup.
Once the stock is ready, a few basic techniques will serve you to make just about any kind of soup. For a simple chicken or vegetable soup, just add whatever ingredients you want straight to the stock and heat through. I always keep packages of frozen peas and spinach and single-serving cans of corn to throw in the pot. Chunk up some potatoes into the kettle or use up the leftover rice or noodles to add a little sustenance.
For bean or pea soups, saute diced onions, carrots and celery, add soaked beans and stock and simmer for an hour or so. The same technique works well for pureed soups. Saute your vegetables, add the stock and simmer, then puree in the food processor or blender. Add a little milk or cream to taste.
Chowders (how could you possibly beat homemade chowder on a cold, dark New England evening?) are defined as soups that are started by frying potatoes and onions in rendered bacon fat. From this base, several kinds of chowder can be made: New England clam chowder with milk or cream, Rhode Island-style chowder with broth only or Manhattan-style chowder with broth and tomatoes. I find that when the cupboard is bare, I almost always have everything needed to make corn chowder.
The thought of making homemade bread can be intimidating to some, but it is a skill well worth learning. Close your eyes and visualize a steaming slice of fragrant bread spread with sweet, melting butter. Taste the flavor that is impossible to buy at the store. Imagine the satisfaction of knowing you made this with your own hands in your own humble kitchen.
The steps for making bread are fairly universal, varying little from recipe to recipe. I turn most often to “Beard on Bread” by James Beard for bread recipes, and this volume includes an excellent discussion of basic bread-making principles. However, some of the best recipes can be found in locally produced community cookbooks. There are real treasures to be discovered in those paperback spiral-bound editions hidden among the Jello salads and tuna bakes, like diamonds in the rough.
Kneading is what makes the bread-making experience so magical. Technically, kneading means pushing and folding the dough over and over to distribute the yeast evenly throughout the dough and to develop gluten strands. But any people who have watched their mother or grandmother make bread, or who have done it themselves, knows it is much, much more — a rhythm, a connection with the baking process few other kitchen experiences provide. Using a bread machine or stand-up mixer with a dough hook will produce a finer texture bread, but bread kneaded by hand has soul.
Most recipes require at least one period of rising, sometimes more. This is a chance for the yeast to work, and the chef to rest. With your bread rising and your stock simmering, all seems right with the world.
Making bread is a process that requires time and patience, but the end product is that much more rewarding for the effort. The recipe I have included here requires only that you knead the bread, then immediately shape it into loaves, let it rise once and bake. It’s perfect for a day when I don’t have quite so much time or want to spend my efforts making a more elaborate soup.
I have included my favorite and simplest cold-clearing, sinus-clearing soup recipe, extremely adaptable to varying tastes and available ingredients.
Single Rising Italian Bread
2 packages active dry yeast 1 tablespoon sugar 1 cup warm (not hot) water 1/3 cup melted butter, cooled slightly
3/4 cup very warm water 2 teaspoons salt 5 1/2-6 cups all-purpose flour Cornmeal 1 egg white, slightly beaten
Combine the yeast, sugar and 1 cup warm water in a large bowl, stir until dissolved and let sit until the mixture starts to bubble slightly.
Next add butter, salt and remaining 3/4 cup water.
Add flour, 1 cup at a time, beating vigorously with a wooden spoon until it starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl.
Turn it onto a generously floured board. Don’t worry if it seems sticky. Gently fold in the remaining flour, kneading until the dough begins to become smooth and elastic. Knead for an additional 10-15 minutes and then let sit for 5-6 minutes.
Divide dough in two, roll each half into a rectangle 12 inches by 8 inches, then roll up tightly lengthwise, pinching the seams.
Butter a baking sheet and sprinkle with cornmeal. Place the loaves on the sheets and let rise in a warm, draft-free place until double, about 1-1 1/2 hours.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees and brush loaves lightly with beaten egg.
Bake 40 minutes until loaves are golden in color and sound hollow when thumped on the bottom.
Makes two loaves.
Cures What Ails You Soup
4-5 pound chicken, cut up 2 medium onions 1 head garlic 3 ribs celery 3 carrots peeled 4 bay leaves 2 teaspoons peppercorns 2-3 sprigs fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme 1-2 habenero peppers, split in half 1 inch fresh ginger root, peeled 2 small cans chicken broth Water to cover 2 teaspoons olive oil 4-8 cloves of garlic, finely minced 1 tablespoon finely minced fresh ginger root 3 scallions, white part only, finely sliced Juice of 1 lemon
Place chicken in pot.
Remove the root and skin from the onions, then cut in half and add to the pot. Likewise remove the root end from the garlic head and slice in half and add to the pot.
Cut the celery and carrots into large chunks and add with bay leaves, peppercorns, thyme, hot pepper and ginger root.
Add the chicken broth and enough water to cover.
Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to simmer. Occasionally skim off any scum that forms on the surface. Simmer for 1-1 1/2 hours.
Remove from heat and strain, keeping the chicken and discarding the other solids. Set aside stock in a separate container. Skim the fat off the surface, removing as much as possible. In soup kettle, saute garlic, ginger and scallions lightly in olive oil and add stock.
When the chicken is just cool enbough to handle, debone and add to the soup. Heat through.
Squeeze a little fresh lemon juice into each bowl when serving.